On this day in 1893, Swami Vivekananda gave one of the most powerful speeches in history at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.
Introducing India’s Wisdom to the West
Swami Vivekananda (12 Jan 1863 – 4 July 1902) is one of the foremost Indian saints of modern times, remembered not only for his great spiritual insights, prodigious wisdom and intellect and powerful oratory, but also his far reaching attempts at bringing the philosophy of Yoga and Vedanta to the West. During his first visit to America, he stated that “I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East.”
Serveral Western thinkers of his time and even after his time revered the wisdom and spirit of this great soul. French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland said of him: “His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Händel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years’ distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!”(1)
Swami Vivekananda’s brilliant speeches at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago in 1893 (11 to 27 Sep) where he called on inter-faith unity, were an instant hit and are still renowned the world over. At the time, the speeches created a huge sensation in America. The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them”. The New York Herald noted, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation”.
The following is the text of his first, now famous address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Upon uttering the opening words, “Brothers and Sisters of America”, Vivekananda was interrupted by a two-minute standing ovation from the crowd of attendees. As Swami Nikhilananda writes, “They were deeply moved to see, at last, a man who discarded formal words and spoke to them with the natural and candid warmth of a brother”.(1)
Vivekananda spoke without the aid of any prepared notes but with the power of Saraswati (to whom he bowed at the start) and of the soul of the ancient land of India.
Vivekananda’s Welcome Address, Chicago, 11 Sep 1893
Sisters and Brothers of AmericaIt fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. l thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of the millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects. My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration.I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to the southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings:
As the different streams having there sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee.(2)
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world, of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita:
Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.
Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
Excerpt from Closing Address, Chicago, 27 Sep 1893
While the above speech at the opening address of the conference is most famous, Swami Vivekananda also gave other speeches at the conference that were extremely popular. He continually stressed the need for harmony and unity in the world. At the closing address, for instance, he declared that:
Much has been said of the common ground of religious unity. I am not going just now to venture my own theory. But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, “Brother, yours is an impossible hope.” Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid.
The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant. It develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant.
Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.
If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: “Help and not fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”
(2) Vivekananda quoted here from the Shiva Mahima Stotram